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‘Game of Thrones’ is HBO’s latest crowning achievement


8 to 9 p.m. Sundays on HBO

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Writer David Benioff was joking when he described his new series, “Game of Thrones,” as “‘The Sopranos’ in Middle Earth.” But he’s not far off. HBO’s high-fantasy extravaganza combines the drama of battling families with the extreme environments of “The Lord of the Rings.”

There are no Mafia hobbits here, but Peter Dinklage does have a role as a Machiavellian dwarf.

The players are all after world domination, but there’s even more at stake: If the show can build on its discerning “Boardwalk Empire” audience with rabid fanboys, it’ll put HBO back on the map. Of this world, I mean.

“Games of Throne” is based on George R.R. Martin’s popular A Song of Ice and Fire book series, which Benioff calls “crack on paper.” It’s set mainly on the continent of Westeros, where the families of seven kingdoms plot, seduce and slash their way to control of the Iron Throne. (It’s understandable. Said throne is a spiked monstrosity constructed of ancient swords — the manliest furnishing of all time.)

Benioff says that when he sat down with Martin to discuss the adaptation, Martin “immediately launched into his whole spiel about how freeing it was to be able to write a vast, sprawling story that was completely unproduceable.”

Not the kind of thing you want to hear when you’re producing the story.

Benioff and co-writer D.B. Weiss reduced the cast of thousands to a more manageable 150 or so, led by Sean Bean as Ned Stark, the noble leader of northern kingdom Winterfell. It’s a place where summers can last decades, and the savage winters, with their 100-foot snowfalls, can last a lifetime. “Winter is coming,” Ned says darkly. More than once.

In the first episode Sunday, he is summoned to the more tropical capital of the kingdom to serve his old pal King Robert. The decadent king is played by Mark Addy with relish — you probably won’t recognize him from his “Still Standing” days. He explains to Ned, “I’m trying to get you to run my kingdom while I eat, drink and whore my way to an early grave.”

Among their opponents: the king’s wife, Cersei, and her handsome twin, Jaime. Across the narrow sea, another brother-sister team is allying with the Barbarian-like Dothraki. And who knows what threats may come from behind the 300-mile-long, icy Wall. Wildlings? White walkers? Shadow cats?

It’s a lot to keep track of, which is why the computer-generated opening credits are so cool. The camera pans over the map of Westeros as kingdoms rise and gears turn. “The maps change in different episodes when the characters visit different locations and new things pop out of the map,” says Benioff.

He and Weiss think we’re up to the challenge, though. “The great HBO dramas have all been set in very large worlds with very many characters that we’re supposed to invest in,” says Weiss.

“All of them — ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Deadwood’ and ‘Rome’ and ‘The Wire’ — they all require effort on the part of the viewer, and then they all, I think, repay that effort a hundredfold for the people who were really willing to invest in them.”

My guess is that audiences will make the investment. Things kick off with a whopper of a cold opening; suffice to say that, by the end of the series, you should be well versed in the art of decapitation.

HBO gifted “Game of Thrones” with both time and a healthy budget. It shows. The kingdoms are gorgeous to look at, down to the last loving detail — you could be entertained just by watching for the inventive suits of armor. The violence is spectacular; the sex is twisted. The producers even had a language invented for the Dothraki, which should please the Dungeons and Dragons crowd.

Go ahead, get wrapped up in the layers of intrigue of another world. Because winter is coming.

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